Bob Dylan’s Black History

How a skinny white man from Minnesota earned the right to headline the president’s civil rights concert.

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In addition to these overtly journalistic songs, there were, of course, the mega-hits like “Blowin in the Wind” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” remixed and covered by nearly all of the major singing groups of the civil rights era—The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, and Peter Paul and Mary, who took his “Times they Are A-Changing” to the top of the American pop charts. But “Blowin in the Wind” derived from a negro spiritual Dylan had heard, and, the lore goes, inspired Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come”—played frequently on Election Day 2008. What remains remarkable about Dylan is this multiplying force; the millions who regarded him as a pop icon enjoyed his odes to love, friendship, or just free association—alongside powerful and insistent arguments for economic, environmental and racial justice.

Dylan never took his megaphone lightly. In 1975, he visited boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in prison, and subsequently took up his cause in an 8-minute howler that declared: If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street / Less you wanna draw the heat. (He had penned a similar ode to slain Black Panther leader George Jackson in 1972.) Unlike, for example, Elvis Presley or other white performers who appropriated black musical forms, Dylan encouraged give-and-take with black musicians, and rendered credit where due: In 1965, he cited Smokey Robinson as one of his poetic inspirations, and he calls Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” which Dylan wrote, the definitive version. One of Dylan’s most revered albums, Highway 61 Revisited, is named after the stretch of interstate that connects his native Minnesota with the black musical mecca of New Orleans. And “Blind Willie McTell,” recorded in the 1980s and finally released in 1991, offered a synopsis of black history and a tribute to the Georgia-born blues singer of the title:

See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
(I can) hear the undertaker’s bell
(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell.

For those more familiar with traditional gospel, blues or folk sung by the black performers at the White House celebration, there are plenty of reasons to give Dylan another listen as well. His trademark, thin tenor and folksy guitar strumming, often joined by harmonica and piano, are hard to associate with “black” popular music. But Sam Cooke, Tracy Chapman, Nina Simone and other black artists have taken Dylan’s blueprints and made remarkable tracks of their own. And it’s Dylan’s commitment to lyricism (he published a volume of poetry in 1993) that allowed him to chronicle injustice and champion civil rights, and today sets him apart. Bond, noting that he and many of his SNCC compatriots loved Dylan, adds, “We like all kinds of music.”

When Dylan took the stage toward the close of the White House event, he seemed frail and mournful, a long way from the jaunty 19-year-old who first insisted times were a-changing. Nevertheless, Dylan’s immortal lyrics spoke simultaneously to an America that had elected its first black president and to a capital city buried in snow and hopeless partisan gridlock. In an infamous 1963 address to the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, Dylan told the stately gathered crowd: “I look down to see the people that are governing me and making my rules—and they haven’t got any hair on their head—I get very uptight about it.” In 2010, Obama invited him, past the height of his singing powers, but as a storyteller for a new generation, to once more speak directly to the lawmakers he had called out long ago. He rose to the occasion:

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall

For he who gets hurt will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’

It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls